By Sophie Neems, Previous NFU Intern & Current Communications Specialist at Farm Credit

There’s a noticeable new trend in farming demographics: the number of farmers coming to agriculture as a second career –  many of whom are women – is growing. These female, first-generation producers must secure land, build an enterprise, and establish themselves within a professional framework built for and by men. To overcome these barriers, many turn to innovative business models and marketing strategies, adding a new layer of diversity among producers that leads us to question: “What exactly is a farmer?” And: “Who exactly is a farmer?” 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year.” By that definition, a farmer is any individual who runs such an operation. However, cultural norms aren’t always so inclusive; stereotypes persist that suggest that “farmers” produce crops on a large scale and be a white male above the age of 50.

This narrow definition is problematic. It excludes most socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers – including first generation female farmers – who, due to high land prices, often have small, urban farms and thus limited production capabilities. Though this setup may preclude participation in traditional markets, the relative proximity to consumers in more urban areas opens up the possibility of new and diverse markets, like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). In doing so, these farmers differentiate themselves once again from their agricultural counterparts.

What is the result of this trend? A diverse generation of farmers whose presence challenges stereotypes.

Sherri Dugger, a member of Indiana Farmers Union, a National Farmers Union Beginning Farmers Institute alum, and a first-generation farmer of a small-scale operation, has become frustrated by the polarity she sees within the agricultural community stemming from these differences. Why do we need more division in the world when we’re all trying to do the same thing?,” Sherri asked. “Regardless of size, we are, in fact, working with the same goal in mind: to feed the world.”

How can farmers reconcile their differences? What practical steps can they take to bridge the gap?

Sherri urges her peers to share a meal with their neighbors and engage in conversation. “We have extended those invitations to all types and sizes of farmers. The only way to find good solutions is to work together, open our minds, and listen to one another.”

For such a dialogue to be productive, Sherri feels farmers must separate themselves from their egos. “If we could all find ways to remove our pride and egos from any given situation and accept that ‘the other side’ might have something to teach us, we could more easily open the door for conversation.”

Though the definition of “farmer” may remain blurry, semantics are the least of our worries. Instead, as Sherri demonstrates, communication and mutual understanding of one another must come first.

How do you bridge the gaps within the diversity of agricultural production? Share your own thoughts and experiences in the comments below.


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